The history of Svaneti is closely connected with the history of Georgia. Because of its border location, Svaneti has benefited from the rise of the Georgian Kingdom since the Middle Ages: Svans were suitable as reliable border guards. With the decline of medieval Georgia, Svaneti became the treasury of Georgia. For the nobility withdrew into the mountains before the armies of the Mongols, Persians and Ottomans. Despite all attempts to exert influence, Svans retained the traits of a traditional culture even beyond the Soviet era. Their traces can be discovered as a visitor in the geographical space until today.
The following text is taken from the first Svaneti travel guide "Swanetien entdecken – Ein Kultur- und Naturreiseführer für Georgien", which has been published only in German so far. Felle welcome to follow my invitation to take a look inside the book:

The consequences of the division of Svaneti for the political and social order

With the decline of the central Georgian power, families from the Georgian high nobility increasingly developed their regional claims to power. The Dadiani family succeeded in asserting these claims at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries for Lower Svaneti in the valley of the Tskhenistsqali. Various documents prove that their claims to power were in principle also recognised beyond this area in the valley of the Upper Enguri.

The decline of the Mongol empires led to the rise of the united Turkic tribes in the Ottoman Empire. With the conquest of Constantinople (1453) and Trapezunt (1461) and the transfer of European trade routes to the sea, Georgia was cut off from the Christian cultural area, and the Georgian state finally disintegrated into individual kingdoms and principalities. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire and the Persians fought in the South Caucasus, forcing the Georgian princes to enter into alternating alliances.

Using the central power vacuum, individual families attempted to bring Upper Svaneti under their control in the 14th to 15th century, initially in parts, to dominate it entirely eventually. Meanwhile, the Dadiani dynasty ultimately secured its rule in Lower Svaneti. Brigitta Schrade writes that based on an analysis of the Svan church memorial books, it can be understood that only the eastern part of the Upper Enguri valley from Latali to Ushguli remained really free. In the Upper Svaneti, the Dadeschkeliani succeeded in extending their dominion up to the borders of Latali. From Latali to Ushguli, the inhabitants were able to maintain the concept of the valley community as an oath community and the associated legal practices.

Members of the Dadiani family from Lower Svaneti (pictures taken from the regional museum of Lentekhi)

Remains of the fortress of the Dadeschkeliani family in the village of Ezeri (Applis 2021)
The Organization of the villages as communities of oath: In the village communities, which considered themselves to belong together, a jointly cultivated legal system prevailed, carried out by elected representatives of the villages. Confirmation of legal judgements by the councils of elders and mediators who administered the village communities took the form of icon oaths. The decisions were written on church walls or carved into crosses so that they were visible to all. One swore by the saint depicted on the icon that one would abide by the decisions. In the Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography, wooden sticks are preserved, which contain legal documents written down on all sides. This led to the consolidation of traditional legal practices in the area of the upper Enguri valley. Thus the valley communities administered themselves as communities of oath in a, according to Brigitta Schrade, "military-democratic system", which was stabilized by the church. The Orthodox Church established the bishop's see in Seti, in the central village of the village community of Mestia, a church centre of power, at which the villages of the free village communities were oriented. To preserve the military power of the Svans, there was probably, according to Brigitta Schrade, at times a kind of competition among the rulers from the Georgian plain, which was expressed in donations of bells, icons and money. Also, the society differentiated itself in the region, which was later called Free Svaneti by the tsarist administration. Wealthier family lines appeared more and more as founders or donors, which contributed to a stabilization of the legal practices secured by the church and thus to a stabilization of the community. It was probably always risky to take action against the strong village communities since they had a large contingent of men who had been tested in war and also tended to go off on their own in a raid.

Upper Svaneti around 1900; pictures taken from Gottfried Merzbacher (1904). Aus den Hochgebirgen des Kaukasus. Dunker und Humblot. Leipzig.

Georgia’s further decline and progressive loss of territory led to a loss of support for Svaneti from the Georgian plain. In the south, the Ottoman Empire pushed forward; In the east, the Persian Empire. Its progressive disintegration was then associated with the rise of the Russian Tsarist Empire. Svaneti, although still protected by its peripheral location, became increasingly isolated. Besides, there were church-political reorganisations, which led to a revival of Catholicism and Catholic missionary attempts. In general, according to Brigitta Schrade, a decline in priestly training, religious teaching and pastoral care – including a decrease in baptism – can be reconstructed from the available documents. Many congregations were left mainly to their own devices for long periods, which is why simple forms of popular religiosity intensified in Svan Christianity in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Caucasus and Svaneti as parts of the tsardom

The Kingdom of Georgia had already had to submit to the Tsar in 1801. The historian Joerg Baberowski describes the Russian expansion and tsarist rule in the Caucasus as a hundred-year war that lasted from 1774 to 1878 and ultimately did more harm than good to the Russian empire.

The region was neither economically nor militarily of great importance to the Tsarist Empire. Ultimately, the aim was to secure a southern border, which the Russian Cossacks did along a line of settlements and fenced military bases. However, the expansion of agriculture, cattle breeding and pasture farming by the Cossacks intervened so forcefully in the economic system of the mountain peoples that there were repeated outbreaks of violence. After the Russian process of conquest in confrontation with the Ottoman Empire and Persia was in principle completed in 1828, there were uprisings against the Russian occupiers everywhere in the Caucasus from the 1840s onwards.

The expansion of the Russian Empire in the Caucasus (Applis 2021)

According to Jörg Baberowski, the problem lay in a change in administrative policy. Since the Russian Empire was expanding so far outside its centre, it was initially dependent on the cooperation of local elites. These had to be integrated into the tsarist army and be prepared to collect taxes locally in the name of the Tsar. In Svaneti, these were members of the noble families Dadeschkeliani and Dadiani. The regional legal structures were preserved in the mountain regions, regardless of whether they were Christian or Islamic in character. From 1840, however, Russia reformed administrative law and banned traditional customary law. This deprived the local elites of power over the villages and reformed land ownership. And it led to a revolution in the Islamic regions of Dagestan, Chechnya and Cherkessia. It took Russia ten years to put them down. The uprising turned into a „Holy War“ and was fought without mercy on both sides. Through offers of integration and partial restoration of local customary law, the tsarist empire succeeded in splitting allies. Ruthless expulsions and punishment of rebel groups deterred the local population in the long run from being mobilised for the resistance struggle.

Upper Svaneti around 1900; pictures taken from Gottfried Merzbacher (1904). Aus den Hochgebirgen des Kaukasus. Dunker und Humblot. Leipzig.

"Free Svaneti": The term "Free Svaneti" was used by the tsarist administration for the region, which was officially annexed since 1853. Already in 1847, several villages had submitted themselves to the tsar. Others probably also refused to provide to the Russian legal system, because with the Russian policy, which also understood Russia as a civilizing project, a Christianization in the sense of the Russian Orthodoxy was connected. This led to resistance in many places, because Svan Christianity was strongly connected with traditional customary law. In the case of Svaneti, a massacre by tsarist troops in 1876 is recorded for the village of Khalde, which today is no longer inhabited and belongs to the village community of Kala. About 60 people are said to have been killed in this massacre. Another 40 were deported as forced labourers, only one of whom returned to Svaneti. The villagers of Khalde had refused to comply with tax demands of the Russian Empire, because they, as Svans of Free Svaneti, did not want to submit to tsarist law. All the family towers were demolished, and the village was razed to the ground. Khalde was not repopulated until 1924 in the Soviet era with the establishment of a collective farm in Kala.

Recommended reading

Baberowski, J. (2008): Der hundertjährige Krieg 1774–1878: Russische Expansion und zaristische Expansion. In: Wegweiser zur Geschichte. Kaukasus. Hrsg. vom Militärgeschichtlichen Forschungsamt. [The Hundred Years‘ War 1774-1878: Russian Expansion and Tsarist Expansion. In A Guide to History. Caucasus. Ed. by the Military History Research Office]. Schöning Verlag.

Schrade, B. (2021): Das christliche Swanetien. Beiträge zur Geschichte und Kunst der byzantinischen „Peripherie“ zwischen Jerusalem und Konstantinopel [The Christian Svaneti. Contributions on the history and art of the Byzantine „periphery“ between Jerusalem and Constantinople]. Reichert.

Janiashvili, L. (2012): Traditional law in Soviet times. In: Caucasus Analytical Digest 42, 5–7.

Topchishvili, R. (2005): Svaneti and its inhabitants. National Parliamentary Library of Georgia. Tbilisi. mountein_regions.pdf

Recommended foto-gallery:

Photography by Vittorio Sella (1896-1900):